Zana Mamand Mohammad, a policeman from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, lost his teenage brother in the sinking in November last year of a boat carrying at least 33 migrants attempting to cross the Channel from France to England.
They had begun their journey at around 10pm on November 23rd 2021, packed into an inflatable dinghy which was launched from a beach at Grande-Synthe, close to the port of Dunkirk on the French Channel coast.
Their dinghy, carrying women, men and youngsters, including a seven-year-old girl, first got into difficulty just inside French territorial waters shortly before 2am on November 24th 2021. Later that day, 27 bodies were retrieved from the sea. Two men were the only survivors.
Several bodies – at least four but precisely how many is unknown – have never been recovered, including that of Zana Mamand Mohammad’s 18-year-old brother Twana.
“How could the French and English authorities have left children, women and men die at sea while for hours they had raised the alarm about their sinking?” asked Mohammad, 33, in an interview with Mediapart. “My brother Twana dreamed only of succeeding in a European country in peace, far from the chaos we live with in Iraq. At 18, that’s all he dreamed of.”
What happened in the hours that followed the migrants’ first mobile phone calls for help, and why they were never rescued by the French or British coastguards, is the subject of an ongoing judicial investigation in France to establish the responsibilities for “manslaughter”, the “involuntary causing of injuries” and “placing the life of others in danger”.
Mediapart met with Mohammad for an interview at his lawyer’s office in Paris. He had travelled to France to be questioned by the judicial investigation, to which he, along with a number of other victims’ relatives, is a civil party (plaintiff). Speaking to Mediapart in the Sorani dialect of Kurdish, via a translator, and visibly tired after more than three hours of questioning. He was also concerned for his family back home in northern Iraq, where Turkey has launched airstrikes over recent days against Kurdish targets.
“For years we have lived in insecurity in Iraq,” said Mohammad. “We must [also] step up our efforts to lead a legal combat that is happening in France. But we organise ourselves collectively, and today I represent seven families of victims who were unable to make the trip.”
After the identification of the 27 victims at the end of last year, some of their families were tracked down by the association Care4Calais, an association that provides emergency aid to refugees in France’s north-east Channel coast region, and which then put them in contact with lawyers in France.
“But it’s a long and difficult fight, and even to obtain a visa to be questioned by the investigation was complicated,” explained Mohammad. “I will lead it right up to the end, for my brother and his friends who died in the sinking.”
It was at the end of August 2021, after finding a people-smuggler to assist them, that Twana and five of his friends left northern Iraq in search of a brighter future, firstly arriving by plane in Turkey. From there, two months later, he joined a clandestine four-day crossing by boat from the Aegean coast and across the Mediterranean, landing on a beach in southern Italy on October 12th. He then continued his journey, arriving in the northern French port of Calais on October 26th, hoping to each Britain.
“He wanted to join our sister who lives in England, in Sheffield,” said Mohammad. “The last time that I had him on the phone, it was the evening of his departure, at around 10pm. He had just got into the boat in which he [later] perished. When the engine stopped, my brother alerted the rescue services. But they never came. My brother was not treated like a human being by the rescue services.”
Soon after the horrific events on November 24th 2021, the French authorities promised firm measures to deal with the dangerous clandestine crossings of the Channel. Hardline interior minister Gérald Darmanin denounced “criminal people smugglers who exploit their [migrants’] distress and misery”, while President Emmanuel Macron declared that, “France will not allow the Channel to become a cemetery”, promising to “find and sentence those responsible”.
The fatal failures of the Channel rescue services
But now, one year later, the initial findings of the investigations in France into the tragedy implicate the direct responsibility of the French maritime rescue services and raise questions over that of their British counterparts.
One of the two survivors from the dinghy, Ahmad Shexa, has told the French judicial investigation that the French rescue services at one point told the passengers to contact the British emergency call number, 999. “But the English said that they had to call the French because we were closer to the French coast,” he said in a statement. “That lasted between two and two-and-a-half hours, it was during the night.”
Statements given to the investigation say it was after the inflatable dinghy had been at sea for around three to four hours, at between 1am and 2am, that it began to deflate, letting seawater flood in from the stern and causing the outboard engine to stop. Some of the passengers then tried in vain to bail out the water, while others called for help from the French and British maritime rescue services.
According to transcriptions of the conversations between the passengers of the sinking boat and the French coast guard, the first call for help was recorded at 1.48am. The call was made to the coast guard’s Regional operational centre for surveillance and rescue, the CROSS, based at Cap Gris-Nez, a coastal point about 25 kilometres from Calais, which is responsible for assisting boats in danger in French territorial waters of the Channel.
The caller explained that the dinghy was “broken”. Three minutes later, at 1.5am, the coast guard centre identified the geolocation of the boat, which placed it in French waters.
As revealed by French daily Le Monde, the CROSS received more than a dozen calls from passengers of the dinghy between 1.48am and 4.16am, including from Zana Mamand Mohammad’s brother Twana. But not only was no rescue vessel apparently ever sent, the emergency call operators even mocked the victims.
In one extract from the transcript of the communications, a woman call operator, after losing the conection with one of the migrants who had phoned appealing for help, commented: “Ah well, you can’t hear, you won’t be saved. ‘I’ve got my feet in the water’, well,… I didn’t ask you to leave”.
According to documents seen by Mediapart, the French rescue services sent no rescue vessel despite the position of the sinking boat having been identified, situated in French waters.
The responsibility of the British authorities is also raised. When the migrants’ boat arrived in UK waters at about 2.30am, rescue services alerted the Border Force patrol vessel HMC Valiant, which was about 45 minutes of sailing time away from the dinghy. But it never arrived. When, at a certain moment, the British concluded that the dinghy was not in their waters, they sent an email to the CROSS announcing that they would not send help. The ping-pong of responsibility continued on the French side, which refused to send patrol ship Le Flamant even though it was closest to the sinking dinghy.
It was at about 1.50pm on that same day of November 24th 2021 that a French fishing boat first discovered victims’ bodies in the sea and alerted the CROSS.
“As of the moment that it is known that a boat of migrants is in distress, one must clearly intervene without asking questions about territorial waters,” said Zana Mamand Mohammad’s Paris lawyer, Matthieu Chirez, who represents several other victims’ families. “What were the means employed by the French and English rescue services, [both] perfectly informed of the situation in which these passengers were? It is one of the major answers that the investigation should provide.”
He added that given the press revelations and the announcement by France’s Minister for the Sea, Hervé Berville, that an administrative investigation is underway, “the responsibility of the maritime prefect for the Channel and the North Sea, the regional department for maritime affairs, with responsibility for the CROSS and the [patrol] ship Flamant, may be engaged, and that of the English rescue services is already in question”.
- The original French version of this report can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse